Saturday, September 24, 2011

Death Valley National Park. My Experience

As soon as I decided to go to Yosemite National Park, I knew that I had to somehow include Death Valley in the same trip. Getting to Death Valley is a lot easier from Las Vegas but we were flying to Los Angeles so it had to be the other way around

Death Valley National Park is the US largest outside Alaska, the Valley itself is narrow and surrounded by the Amargosa, Black Mountains and Panamint Ranges, these mountains are completely bare with no vegetation whatsoever which exposes their colorful rocks. Within Death Valley you will find very diverse landscapes from sand dunes, pure salt basins, badlands and even a full blown resort with golf course included at Furnace Creek.

Consider these before you go

In my humble opinion this should be a minimum two-days trip, there is a lot to see and explore and distances are long even by car. 

This place is the hottest in North America, if you read the Park’s recommendations for safety and travel you will get scared, I know because we did. Bring a gallon of water per person per day, don’t do this, don’t do that, rattle snakes, cell phone does not work, etc. They should say plainly that if you are coming in a van, car or vehicle with AC you will be more than ok and that there is really no need to carry a swimming pool full of water with you. That would have been nice to know. However, I supposed that there are plenty of the adventurous type out there and if you get lost without water, it won’t be fun.
I strongly suggest downloading the map from the Park’s site so that you plan your trip in advance, especially, if you are planning to be there for only one day. Obtaining accommodation here is very difficult, so if you want to stay there in a bed with AC (highly, strongly, super recommended), make your reservation way in advance. We stayed in Lone Pine which is 2 1/2 hrs away at German speed.


For the photographer, this place is amazing, it is bare, desolated, very hot but also very colorful. It is anything but boring. Expect NO clouds, sky will be very blue, sun will be strong and shadows harsh. Using a polarizer may be good idea to enrich the color. Also, an UV filter would get rid of some of the haze in the air, that being said, I did not use one because I wanted the contrast between the deep blue of the background Mountains and the foreground rocks or landscape. See at right. 

Photographing speaking, your main problem here will be to provide sense of scale. Remember, you will have no trees, cows, houses or anything to give the viewer of your photos a reference, so the challenge is to wait for some whack-job to walk through the mountains at 45-48 Celcius to embellish your capture. Not to worry, they are plenty of those around, just be patient. I have similar photos with and without people and they do make a difference.   If you have some panoramic gear, make sure to take it with you, it will be worthwhile the inconvenience. 

In terms of lenses, I used only my 70-200 mm and my 17-85 mm, now this is not a place where you want to be changing your lenses a lot, there is lots of dust and sand (I know it sounds strange but the desert is like that)

Best Places

I did not go to the Racetrack which is where you can find those stones with a mysterious track behind them (nobody really knows how this happens), it is really far away and we were worried that the 16 gallons of water we carried were not going to be enough, so we cut the trip there. This is the main reason why I think it should be a two days trip, if you are going all the way there, may as well do it. It will also give you a couple of times to shoot at dawn and sunset where you will be able to get the best light.
We took the 190 from Lone Pine all the way to Stovepipe Wells village (photo at left), right there you will find the Mesquite Sand Dunes which are fantastic (see photo at top right). I also regret not spending more time there; it is difficult when your kids are reminding you that it is already about 40 Celsius and only 8:00 am. 

Another good place is the Golden canyon which you can see in the photo at top left. It is very hot but absolutely gorgeous.
The next best place is Badwater basin, this is a great experience, walking over pure salt is not something you do very often (at right). The extension of the basin is absolutely huge and the fact that is white against the black mountains makes it quite beautiful, see at right (again without the people walking it would have been very difficult to get a sense of scale). The basing as flat as it gets, I found it very difficult to come up with a creative way to showcase the landscape, so I settle for some family photos bragging about our descending to the lowest point in North America.
My absolutely favorite spot was Zabriskie Point, right after Furnace Creek Resort. You get a superb view of these golden badlands which are absolutely beautiful . I did not know about this in advance so I did not carry my panoramic gear with me. Basically, I had to wing it, this panorama was from handheld photos. 
This is by far my favorite photo from Death Valley and it will make it on canvas to some wall of my house.

Dante’s View. At 5,475 ft (1,802 m) this is one of the highest places where you can drive to in Death Valley. The view is spectacular and definitely worth the loop. You will see the Badwater basin just below you and the length of the valley.

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